Greener BeeGreen GadgetsFidelity sees investors picking stocks in virtual reality app

In StockCity last week, the weather was sunny and most neighborhoods had a distinctly greenish tint. Or at least that’s how it looked to me under the hood of an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

The city, which exists only on a computer, is an early working version of a financial analysis app developed by mutual fund and online brokerage giant Fidelity Investments. Right now, it’s pretty rudimentary, kind of like Minecraft crossed with a stock market heat map.

Peering across the virtual city in the Oculus headset, each building represents a stock in a portfolio or index. The buildings are organized by sector into neighborhoods and each roof is colored in a shade ranging from bright red to bright green, reflecting each stock’s performance that day. The weather indicates the market’s overall performance: rainy on down days, sunny when the market is on the upswing.

It all seems like something out of a William Gibson novel, but there’s not much added value yet from the simple app. Still, it’s not hard to imagine a day when the city will become far more helpful, alerting an investor to a stock that’s performing much better or worse than its sector, prompting further investigation, for example. Or perhaps the app will let an investor visually sort a portfolio by different risk characteristics to see if an unintended concentration was building up – too many stocks sensitive to energy prices or interest rates, for instance.

Fidelity developers say they’ve only begun tapping the potential to display and organize more information in StockCity. One of their ideas is to show a flock of birds congregating around a stock’s building if the stock is the subject of growing chatter on Twitter. Traffic in the streets could reflect trading activity.

After Facebook (FB) paid $2 billion for Oculus in July, most expected the VR headset maker would quickly shift focus from gaming to futuristic social meeting spaces, like in sci-fi author Gibson’s cyberspace stories. But around the same time, Oculus also released a software developer kit to encourage a wider variety of future uses.

Fidelity’s skunk works laboratory, which was an early app developer for the iPhone, Google Glass and the Pebble smartwatch, decided to give virtual reality a try. The app provides “an entirely new approach to managing your portfolio,” says Fidelity senior vice president Franklin Gold. But lots more development and customer feedback is needed to “learn if it will play a part in the future of investing,” he says.

Analyzing stocks seems like a natural for VR. There is a flood of real-time and historical data about every stock as well as sectors and the market as a whole. In virtual reality, the data can be mapped against physical space and use the metaphors of the natural world like weather or traffic to help humans comprehend it better and more quickly. Traders and investors already rely on two-dimensional charts and stock screens filled with real-time information. But it can still be a struggle at times to separate the valuable data from the noise.

Fidelity is taking the working model of StockCity to an active trader conference in Las Vegas next week to get more feedback and hone in on adding features traders most desire. The city can be viewed and navigated in a web browser for those who don’t have a VR headset, though the app loses its immersive quality.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Oculus headsets, or any other virtual reality gadgets, will attract a wide audience, let alone become useful for investors. The time Fidelity Labs spent developing iPhone apps certainly paid off, but the effort put into a Google Glass app may be wasted, as the high-tech eyewear may never come to market on a mass scale.

Pebble watches never really caught on, but work on that app will probably inform Fidelity’s efforts to write apps for the upcoming Apple Watch. Apple just released a developer guide today and investing apps look like an obvious fit.

Meanwhile, with stock market indexes still setting records, it’s a sunny day in StockCity.

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